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How to Answer the 10 Most Common Interview Questions

In the course of my career, I’ve been involved in over forty interviews. More than half have been in the capacity of the interviewee and the rest were as the interviewer, with an even mix of on-site and on-campus interviews. I’m by no means an expert but having navigated so many, several common themes emerged and hopefully I can pass along that information to you, prospective interviewee or interviewer, to make the whole process easier for you.

When it comes to interviews, there are two types – the soft qualitative interview and the hard quantitative interview. The soft qualitative interview is one where the interviewer is trying to get a feel for how you’d fit in the team and the organization. It’s designed to learn more about you, your goals, and learning whether those goals are in line with the goals of the organization. The hard quantitative interview is designed to figure out if you are able to do the job by testing you on your domain knowledge and expertise. This post will try to help you with the qualitative questions, the ones designed to find out more about your personality and see if you fit with the company, because the quantitative questions will change from field to field.

This article is part of Bargaineering Career Week 2009 [3], a week-long series focused on your career – how to find a job, how to tailor your resume, how to find the job opportunities and how to nail the interview. This article is the second article of day four – the interview process.

Most Common Interview Questions

Tell me a little about yourself. This is probably the most common of all the interview questions because it’s an easy icebreaker. Whenever I asked someone this question, I just wanted to hear them talk, see what their personality was like, and just get to know them a little more. As an interviewee, my approach to answering this question is to let it be my opportunity to direct the conversation. If I know there’s a bullet on my resume that matches the job very well, I’d highlight it by saying “in the last year, one of my favorite projects was …” and mention it by name. Most interviewers will, consciously or unconsciously, take that cue and ask me about that project.

Where do you want your career to go? This question is usually designed to figure out two things: 1) have you given much thought to your career and how this job fits in that plan; 2) does that career match the needs of the company. If your goal is to earn as much money as possible regardless of who its for, then they might not want to hire you if you will jump from company to company. To prepare for this question, you need to have an idea of what you want to do in five or ten years and see where this job fits.

What would you consider your greatest strengths? This is an opportunity for you to mention a strength that may not be reflected on your resume. If you have a lot of team projects and you’ve talked about team work a lot, don’t mention it as one of your greatest strengths because the interviewer already knows you are strong here. Maybe you’re extremely persistent and attentive to detail, things that are hard to display on a resume, mention that and give an example from your resume.

What would you consider your greatest weakness? I don’t think an interviewer ever expects an interviewee to honestly answer this question and actually give their greatest weakness, so don’t exceed their expectations. And don’t say you have no weaknesses or try to frame a strength as a weakness, people see right through that. My approach has always been to find a weakness you have and show how you’ve taken steps to try to overcome it, preferably highlighting projects on your resume that substantiate that claim.

What motivates you? This is another tricky question that most people would honestly answer “money,” (money may not be motivation #1 but it is always in the top 3, everyone has to eat!) but you can’t say that in an interview because it points to greed. You’ll want to answer honestly so try to find some projects you worked on that you really enjoyed and think about what motivated you to do a good job. Perhaps you were motivated to do good work, so you volunteered at your local soup kitchen. Keep it positive and use it to point to one of your accomplishments.

What interests you about this job? Why do you want this job? You’ll usually be asked a version of this question sometime during an interview because the interviewee wants to understand your motivations more. This also helps them understand how much you understand about the job. Maybe the job has high turnover and is high stress, be sure to address it and say how you would overcome it. Maybe the job is mundane and boring, why are you interested in it? The answer is never “for the paycheck,” but you can always find something about it that interests you. Even a retail job folding clothes or staffing a cash register is a stepping stone into a managerial role in the retail industry.

Are you willing to travel? This question is one of the few that you should answer honestly because if you are unwilling to travel, get the job, and are forced to travel then you will be miserable. If you are willing to travel, say so. They will usually ask what percent, just give a slightly higher percentage than you think you’re actually comfortable with. In general, unless it’s 100%, you won’t travel as much as you think you will.

What are your salary expectations? If you can, defer. A safe bet is always to say “That I don’t know, I’ve been focusing on learning more about the position and whether it’s a good fit for the both of us.” Usually you aren’t asked this question until you are interviewed by someone in Human Resources, usually in an information gathering step, but if you can’t defer and are pushed for an answer, do research beforehand and give a range you are comfortable with.

How soon do you need a response? This is usually a gauge of how in demand you are. If you have pending offers with deadlines, give a day or two before those deadlines as a response. If you don’t, give it about a week. Most decisions are made within a day or two and, judging on the size of the company, an offer within a week depending on how responsive the HR department is with managing approvals and whatnot. You don’t want to say “whenever,” because then they realize you have nothing else pending… which isn’t good.

Do you have any questions for me? This is where the interviewer is trying to gauge your true interest in the job and the company. What you want to do is make sure that you ask questions that show you are interested in the company. I like to ask what the “next steps in the process are” and more pointed questions about the culture of the company, what it’s like to work there, and what the interviewer enjoys about the company.

If these ten weren’t enough, check out this list of the 50 most common interview questions and recommended answers [4]. They are excerpted from The Accelerated Job Search by Wayne D. Ford, Ph.D. [5]

Is there a common interview question I left off the top ten? If so, what is it and what is your recommended response?